The Lions are 3-0 in the preseason for the first time since 1995. Now, it is only the preseason, but that Lions squad did finish with a 10-6 record and make the playoffs. Will this year’s team do the same? Only if the offensive players can quickly adapt to a dramatically different system, and execute it well enough to keep an overworked defense off the field for a change.
OFFENSE (#19 total yardage, #31 rushing, #9 passing, #16 scoring):
Mike Martz’s chuck-and-duck offense never meshed with head coach Rod Marinelli’s personality, so after two seasons in Detroit, Martz and his pass-happy playbook were shown the door. New coordinator Jim Colletto will try to return some balance to the gameplan, and the Lions have emphasized the run in their first three preseason games.
So far, Marinelli approves of the change: “A big part of the run game – and back on my old philosophy all those days – is if you keep hitting and keep throwing body punches, body punches, body punches, you have a chance. But the thing is you have to throw body punches to make it crack. Right now I’m trying to evaluate the guys that want to do it our way. That’s what I’m trying to evaluate out of these games.”
After racking up his second consecutive 4,000-yard season, quarterback Jon Kitna wasn’t happy to see Martz leave ... but after absorbing 114 sacks in the last two years, maybe he should have been. He turns 36 next month, and this is his twelfth year in the league, but Kitna still has problems with consistency – he can look like an All-Pro on one play, then make an utterly inexplicable throw the next. For the third season in a row, he ended up with more interceptions (20) than touchdown passes (18).
The Bills probably won’t see much of Kitna on Thursday; backup Dan Orlovsky may even get the start. Former Michigan State star Drew Stanton would have been in line for a good chunk of playing time, but the 2007 second-round pick, who missed his entire rookie season following knee surgery, is on the shelf again with a sprained thumb. For now, his reps will go to Drew Henson.
Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson, the two holdovers from general manager Matt Millen’s run on first-round wide receivers, are a nightmarish matchup for opposing defensive coordinators. If they stay healthy – a problem last season, when Johnson injured his back and Williams missed the last four games with a sprained knee – both have the size-and-speed combo to dominate most defensive backs. Bills fans will no doubt remember watching Terrence McGee attempt to cover Williams in their last meeting, with predictably futile results. Slot receiver Shaun McDonald, a veteran of Martz’s offense from St. Louis, led the team with 79 catches for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns ... but with the Lions throwing the ball less often this year, his role in the offense is likely to diminish. Tight end Dan Campbell has missed time with a nagging hamstring injury, so Michael Gaines should get another start on Thursday.
The running game has nowhere to go but up. Only Kansas City was worse last season, and five backs finished with more rushing yards than the 1,288 managed by the entire Detroit team. (Of course, Martz’s playcalling contributed to that paltry total; the Lions ran 11 or fewer times in five games.) Oft-injured Kevin Jones was released in March, signing with division rival Chicago, and Central Florida workhorse Kevin Smith – the NCAA’s leading rusher in 2007 – was drafted in the third round. Tatum Bell re-signed with the team and announced that he was setting his sights on a 1,300-yard season as the featured back; didn’t happen last year, and it won’t happen now. In fact, since Aveion Cason, Artose Pinner, and Brian Calhoun can all play special teams, Bell may be closer to the waiver wire than the starting job. Small-school rookie fullback Jerome Felton (Furman) is a masher, and he’s learning from one of the best – Lions running backs coach Sam Gash.
Left tackle Jeff Backus has started every game of his NFL career since becoming Millen’s first-ever draft pick in 2001. Center Dominic Raiola, the first of Detroit’s two second-round picks in that same draft, joined Backus in the lineup for good in 2002 and now has a 96-game streak of his own. Former Raven Edwin Mulitalo, who took over at left guard last season, played for Colletto when the latter was the line coach in Baltimore. First-round pick Gosder Cherilus (Boston College) was expected to immediately step in at right tackle, but George Foster – familiar with the zone-blocking system from his time with Alex Gibbs in Denver – still has the job for now. After taking over for Damien Woody last year, Stephen Peterman remains the right guard.
DEFENSE (#32 total yardage, #23 rushing, #31 passing, #32 scoring):
Although he remains immensely talented, the Lions tired of Shaun Rogers’ attitude and inconsistent work ethic, and the two-time Pro Bowl nosetackle was shipped to Cleveland in the offseason. His replacement, Chuck Darby, is an undersized-but-high-motor type who won a Super Bowl with Marinelli in Tampa. The other tackle, Cory Redding, earned a fat new contract after leading the team in sacks in 2006, then disappeared for a good part of last season. Ends Dewayne White (another former Buccaneer) and Jared DeVries will have to provide most of the pass rush, with Ikaika Alama-Francis pushing DeVries for playing time on the left side.
Now that Rogers is gone, weakside linebacker Ernie Sims is the best player on the defense. Injuries were a concern when the Lions drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 2006, but even though he’s dealt with a nagging shoulder problem that eventually led to offseason surgery, he hasn’t missed a game. Second-round pick Jordon Dizon (Colorado) is the team’s middle linebacker of the future, but for now, veteran Paris Lenon is holding him off in their battle for the starting spot. After an injury-plagued five-year run, strong-side ‘backer Boss Bailey wasn’t re-signed; Alex Lewis and former Colt Gilbert Gardner are dueling for the job, but Lenon could eventually end up here once Dizon is ready to play.
Leigh Bodden, who arrived in the Rogers trade after picking off six passes for Cleveland last year, was expected to make an immediate impact. But after signing a four-year, $27-million contract extension, he hasn’t been able to pass Travis Fisher on the depth chart. Two more of Marinelli’s old friends from Tampa, corner Brian Kelly and strong safety Dwight Smith, were signed to shore up a secondary that gave up 32 receiving touchdowns and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a stunning 70.1 percent of their passes last season. Forced into a starting spot as a rookie by Daniel Bullocks’ torn ACL, Gerald Alexander acquitted himself well enough to keep the job this season. Bullocks has been slow to recover, but may see his first game action on Thursday.
Jason Hanson returns for his seventeenth season in Honolulu blue. He’s battled some leg injuries the last few years, but can still hit the long field goal. In 2007, he made 3-of-4 kicks from 50 yards and out. And when Chicago safety Danieal Manning blocked his 39-yard attempt in Week 4 of last season, it marked Hanson’s first under-40-yard miss since 2004. Dave Rayner, who handled the kicking duties in the first three games while Hanson rested a strained thigh muscle, was released on Tuesday.
Nick Harris is a pretty good punter, landing 26 punts inside the opponent’s 20 (versus just five touchbacks) last year, but the coverage team didn’t give him much help. They ranked 30th in return yardage allowed, and they’re giving up over 11 yards per runback so far in the preseason. The kickoff team was even worse, allowing two touchdowns and a 26.9-yard average.
Aveion Cason probably has the kick-return job sewn up, but backup wide receiver Devale Ellis is also in the mix. Troy Walters has moved on, so Cason, rookie receiver Kenneth Moore, and even Shaun McDonald have returned punts this summer.
Last chance before cutdown day, kids. If you’re fighting for one of those last roster spots, better make this game count.
QB: As most of you are aware, starters normally don’t play much in the final preseason game. I’d hoped Edwards might get some additional time because of missing the Colts game ... but if that thigh is still bothering him, he may not play at all. And with J.P. Losman’s thumb still banged up, and Matt Baker on the waived/injured list, I hope Gibran Hamdan’s resting up tonight (Wednesday). He’ll be busy tomorrow.
RB: Fearless forecast – whether or not Dwayne Wright is still on the roster after Saturday, Xavier Omon has done enough to make the team. Bruce Hall is an intriguing prospect, but for right now, he’s practice squad material. Hey, that’s where Fred Jackson started.
WR: The top four are set. Steve Johnson, Justin Jenkins, Felton Huggins, and Scott Mayle are battling for one or two spots, because there’s no chance they’ll keep seven receivers. Were I a wagering sort, I’d still have to pick the first two names on that list – Jenkins’ special-teams aptitude keeps him here.
TE: What a mess. Courtney Anderson looks like a serviceable backup, but do the injuries to Schouman and Fine mean that Tim Massaquoi makes the team (thus costing the Bills a player they want to keep at another position)? They probably don’t want to make the move, but it may be time to put Fine on injured reserve.
OL: Assuming Langston Walker plays very little (or not at all), Demetrius Bell and Patrick Estes will get a long look at tackle. If they try to sneak Bell onto the practice squad, he’s gone. Unless they’re considering moving Brad Butler outside in an emergency, I believe they also have to keep Estes until (if?) Jason Peters decides to show up. Duke Preston and Jason Whittle haven’t been practicing this week, but both should be safe.
DL: Jason Jefferson has given this team a solid effort since he’s been here, but there no longer appears to be a roster spot for him. This is a good thing – except for Jason, obviously – because it means the tackles have gotten better. Likewise, the Bills should be set with Schobel, Kelsay, Denney, and Ellis at end. With any luck, Ryan Neill will never have to play another down in the base defense.
LB: DiGiorgio and Ellison are solid backups. Right now, I’m guessing they also keep Donnie Spragan, because they just aren’t sure about Costanzo. He, Corto, and Buggs are all decent practice squad candidates.
DB: If they keep five safeties (Whitner, Simpson, Wilson, Scott, Wendling), that probably doesn’t leave room for at least one cornerback who can contribute. Is one of those five not as safe as we think? As for corner ... From this viewpoint, the competition between James, Youboty, and Corner is wide open. I’ll guess that Youboty is the odd man out, but to be honest, I’d try to find a way to keep all three of them.
Hey, the Bills fans finally get a home game? (No, Toronto does NOT count.)
See you in Lot 1.
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